Next digital screen could fold like paper
Scientists tinker with displays for books, clothing, and military gadgets that are as thin as newsprint and as durable as fabric.
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Researchers at Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center recently devised a technique to "print" plastic transistors similar to the type used to control today's flat-panel displays. The new process uses semiconductor ink and a modified ink-jet printer. The transistors can be used to produce electronic displays that roll up.Skip to next paragraph
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The potential value of flexible displays isn't lost on the military. The US Army Research Lab plans to spend $43.6 million over five years on a flexible-display center at a US university to be identified early this year, says Bob Pinnel, chief technology officer at the US Display Consortium in San Jose, Calif. Other branches of the military also are interested.
"DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] is looking at 'immersive imaging,' where the entire interior of a tent will have displays that can simulate conditions for battle preparation, or remote cockpit and field training," Dr. Pinnel says.
Future soldiers will access more information than now, says David Morton, a physicist and manager for the Army Research Lab in Adelphi, Md. Their uniform sleeve, for example, could be a display showing a map or a manual to repair equipment in the field. "Flexible displays will be pervasive in the Army," Dr. Morton says.
One hurdle being worked on is the heat generated during display manufacturing, he says. It can damage the plastic display components. Color displays are in the early stages of development, and could be used as cloth for a digital camouflage suit, but they must be able to withstand wear and tear and washing. An even bigger challenge is to devise a reliable manufacturing system.
"Our goal in 10 to 15 years is to go to a flexible substrate [display backing material] that can be printed roll-to-roll like newspapers, then cut to size," Morton says.
In the private sector, "there already is a great interest in having flexible displays in fashions, including jewelry that can change colors as it is worn," says Kent State's West. Also, wallpaper in homes could become a giant flexible display that changes color or images.
Nearer term, e-book companies will face more traditional challenges, such as working out intellectual property, royalties, and other content issues with publishers.
An even more basic question remains: Can consumers wean themselves away from paper and embrace the gee-whiz display technologies?
As display technologies march forward, so, too, do those for "smart" paper. One type can be electronically erased and rewritten thousands of times by feeding it through a special companion paper. Japan's Ricoh Co., Ltd. has developed several types of "smart" paper that will be sold this year. Two other Japanese companies, Shinsho Corp. and Majima Laboratory Inc., have developed experimental rewritable paper they say is the first to use color. It also needs its own printer.
T-Ink Inc. of New York is taking a different approach with an electrically conductive ink that can make sounds or light up. It already is being used by McDonald's Australia in Happy Meals. The Happy Meal toy lights up as it interacts with ink printed on the meal box or tray liner. Likewise, children using Super Color educational products hear feedback if they write a correct answer to math or spelling questions. The marker they write with activates the conductive ink on the paper.
"The ink is printed on regular, disposable paper," says Andrew Ferber of T-Ink. He says the ink can be printed onto almost anything, including garments, wallpaper, automobiles, and devices like cellphones - and it will be washable. "There's no industry we can't go into."